Initial thoughts on proposals for new GCSE content and assessment for MFL

Curriculum

In 2019, the British Academy, the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Academy of Engineering produced a shared statement calling on the UK Government to adopt a national strategy for languages. They were concerned that the “UK’s poor language capacity has resulted in the loss of economic, social, cultural, and research opportunities”[1]. In short, unless we equip young people with modern foreign languages, we will fail to prepare them for the global world they in which they live.

In response to the increased concern at the poor uptake of modern languages at GCSE and beyond, last month a double consultation was launched relating to Modern Foreign Languages GCSE:

  • GCSE MFL content review: here
  • Assessment consultation: here

Consultation started on 10th March and will close on 19th May, so we will not know for some time the final format that the revised content and matching assessments will take. However, we do know that these proposals stem from the DfE’s ambition “to produce a subject content that aligns more closely with the Teaching Schools Council’s 2016 MFL pedagogy review and, in doing so, ensure the subject content reflects research in language curriculum and teaching and make language GCSEs more accessible and motivating for students”.

A change of approach is required for a number of reasons. Radical changes are necessary if we are to meet the target of 90% of pupils taking the EBacc in 2025 (schools often cite MFL as the reason for their lower-than-desired EBacc entries) and to reverse the worrying trend of diminishing language students at A-Level and beyond. The National Association of Language Advisers (NALA) has recently published a survey concluding that the languages curriculum often fails disadvantaged students, that content should be devised so that pupils feel they are making progress from the outset and proposing a reformed GCSE and a wider range of qualifications[2].

The proposed changes are research based and aim at addressing some of the key issues affecting uptake for languages:

  • the (perceived) difficulty of the subject and relevance of the content. The proposed changes aim at removing guess work with a set list of vocabulary based on high frequency words for each language. This transparency can be very powerful for motivation. Rachel Hawkes, co-director of the National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy (NCELP) also highlights that it might have a social levelling effect, as guess work often relies on wider vocabulary in English and high literacy. With a predetermined set of words to learn, effort put into teaching and learning those words will be rewarded.
  • disposing of specified topics altogether. When creating our KS3 curriculum at United Learning we moved from rigid topics to more fluid and all-encompassing units that focused on linguistic competencies such as justifying opinions or expressing future wishes. We also moved away from lists of low-frequency vocabulary such as long lists of professions or pets, but we retained grouping language under an umbrella to provide context for teachers and learners. I can understand the departure from the traditional topics but I feel cautious about a complete abandonment of context and over-reliance on a list of high frequency words. Vocabulary in the NCELP SoW and Oak videos can sometimes feel a little disconnected within one lesson, even though the overarching rationale is clear. I know many of us learn vocabulary best by categorising; in this approach there is no reference to chunking which was yielding good results in many of our MFL classrooms and I know in many others across the country. I welcome, however, the freedom this system of no topics and a known set list of words can afford teachers when designing their texts and resources.

For now, some further areas of change to consider are:

  • Phonics take centre stage (together with the other two pillars of Vocabulary and Grammar) and will be assessed in various ways (see some below).
  • There will be pre-determined lists of vocabulary: 1200 words (Foundation), 1700 (Higher) which will be drawn primarily (90%) from high frequency words in that language. All language used in assessments will be drawn from these lists and anything extra, including names of places or cognates, will be glossed.
  • Maintenance of fixed tier system.
  • Reading aloud and dictation will be part of the assessment, something that to my knowledge is a first. As both are very worthwhile activities that many teachers use in their daily practice, their inclusion in the assessment is welcomed and will hopefully encourage those who don’t have these as part of their teaching repertoire yet. There might be issues with the validity and reliability of these assessments but we will have to wait to see their final format to draw conclusions.

Some have questioned the timing of this proposal, when teachers and schools are dealing with all the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. I think it is refreshing to have some positive and profound changes to look forward to. I hope it will allow us to serve our young people better by preparing them more thoroughly to become the global citizens they need to be. This is an exciting time to be involved in teaching modern foreign languages in the UK.


[1] https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/publications/languages-uk-academies-statement/

[2] https://university-council-modern-languages.org/2020/11/02/nala-report-the-languages-curriculum-and-disadvantaged-students-published/

Mariu Hurriaga is United Learning’s MFL Subject Advisor with responsibility for raising standards in more than 50 Secondary MFL departments, in both Academies and Independent Schools. Previously, she taught Modern Languages (Spanish, German, French) and Latin at a variety of schools and was Head of Department for 15 years. She is also an examiner for GCSE and A-level.



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